Small player to raise its game

August 18, 2000

Underfunding is causing a brain drain, but a new commission is set to examine how money is distributed

I have plenty of questions, but not much in the way of answers yet," says Norman Kingsbury, the man behind New Zealand's new Tertiary Education Advisory Commission, when asked about the future of research.

Head of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, Kingsbury has the task of chairing the body as it takes a close look at New Zealand's tertiary education system. Among the areas to be reviewed are research and its funding.

Fierce debate and change are seemingly the only certainties. As Michael Selby, deputy vice-chancellor (research) of Waikato University, notes, university research in New Zealand is experiencing "extreme flux": "We are moving from the relatively known, to the unknown."

What is certain is that research in New Zealand is underfunded.

In 1997, just 1.12 per cent of gross domestic product was spent annually on research - compared with 1.87 per cent in the UK and an average of 2.05 per cent in countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. This may be partly attributed to there being few major corporations commissioning research in New Zealand. But government investment, 0.61 per cent of GDP, is also below the OECD average of 0.76 per cent.

The new Labour government says it wants to increase its spend on research to 0.8 per cent of GDP by 2010, and it has made some progress towards this. But, say academics, there is a long way to go.

"We are losing some very bright people to overseas," says Selby, adding that it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit academics from abroad. Academic salaries are low by international standards and researchers are faced with outdated equipment, meagre budgets and difficulties putting together viable, competitive research teams. Funding for basic research is particularly tight, with only 8 per cent of applications to the Marsden Fund, New Zealand's major basic research fund, succeeding.

Teac is unlikely to address funding levels, but it will examine the way money is distributed.

New Zealand's eight public universities receive much of their research income as part of a block grant from the education ministry, based on the number of students they recruit. This is boosted by student fees. It is then left to individual universities to decide how much to spend on research.

"If you asked me ten years ago what percentage of this went on research , I would have said 30 per cent," says James McWha, vice-chancellor of Massey University. "Now I would say 20 per cent, or even closer to 15 per cent." He adds that the amount spent by the government per student, weighted for different subjects, is low and has been falling.

"We have moved from the barely adequate to the inadequate," says McWha. "As staff work harder and do more teaching, there's a danger that research suffers."

Universities, which are obliged to conduct research, and polytechnics, which are not, receive the same block grant per student in comparable programmes of study. It is a point of contention that Teac will have to address.

About NZ$100 million (Pounds 30.1 million) is spent annually on research in New Zealand's universities through the block grant. The rest of the academic spend is gained competitively from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, which receives NZ$350 million a year from parliament for strategic research. Universities win about 10 per cent of this, with the majority going to the country's nine state-owned Crown research institutes.

Professor Selby says this revenue is important, being one of the few ways a university can build substantial new research teams.

In June, the foundation replaced its Public Good Science Fund with five funds, each earmarking resources for different research areas. Perhaps the most significant was the establishment of the New Economy Research Fund to support research for tomorrow's industries and technologies, says James Buwalda, chief executive officer at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology.

The universities have more success competing for a share of the $26 million Marsden Fund, run by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which is targeted at basic research. Academe secures some 75 per cent of this cash.

One of the major issues to be considered by Teac will be the extent to which the funding system fosters competition rather than collaboration and whether this is beneficial in a small country such as New Zealand.

Universities are forced to compete for students and their associated funds, while research teams are encouraged to compete for foundation and Marsden contracts. Many -including the government - suggest New Zealand may have gone too far down the competition path and that more efforts should be made to foster collaboration.

Teac is not expected to turn its attention to research any earlier than this time next year and a report is unlikely before September 2001.

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